Richfield, the state's 'oldest suburb'

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2008 - 11:16 PM

The city named for its rich prairie soil turns 100 this month.

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The Historical Society identifies this 1954 photo as: “Urban development near the John Tierney farm at 62nd Street and Penn Avenue S. in Richfield.”

Photo: ., Minnesota Historical Society

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Richfield, the city of lakes and Minnehaha Falls. Home of Southdale, the Galleria and Knollwood Mall. Richfield, Minnesota's biggest city.

Not.

But it could have been, if the generous forefathers of Richfield had been a bit greedier about clinging to their territory.

As Minnesota's self-styled "oldest suburb" begins its centennial celebration this month, Richfield is not only acknowledging its past but also saluting its future.

Named for its rich black prairie soil, Richfield in 1858 stretched over 63 square miles, encompassing what is now Minneapolis from Lake Street south, Edina and St. Louis Park, part of Hopkins, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and much of Fort Snelling State Park.

Once known as the fertile home of vegetable-selling truck farmers with names like Bachman and Wagner, after World War II Richfield became the classic 1950s suburb with waves of newly built ramblers pushing cows off the farm fields. The population nearly doubled in just a few years.

Now, the city is known as the headquarters of Best Buy and for the new senior citizen and condominium high-rises at the heart of its 7 square miles.

Richfield, which was established as a village in 1908, is unusual in that it has avoided most of the ills of aging postwar suburbs despite its tight boundaries and refusal to become relentlessly upscale.

"What makes Richfield interesting now is the degree to which they're trying to preserve their original dream," said Macalester College geography Prof. David Lanegran. "They're not being gentrified. They're still holding out as a family-based homeowner community. ...

"Richfield, to a remarkable extent, has been able to preserve the dream as being a great place for middle-income people to raise a family."

Trading post drew first settlers

The Richfield Historical Society's soon-to-be-published history book is boldly titled "Richfield: Minnesota's Oldest Suburb." Bloomington and Eden Prairie, which also were established as townships on the same April day in 1858, might beg to differ, as might an old settlement like Stillwater.

But Lisa Plank, the historical society's director, said the designation is appropriate because Richfield originally included Camp Coldwater near Fort Snelling, where in the 1820s a trading post drew the first tiny group of non-native settlers and farmers.

Richfield didn't stay big for long. In 1886 St. Louis Park became a separate village, and in 1889 what was called "west Richfield" became Edina. The state Legislature annexed land to Minneapolis and later the big city grabbed more Richfield land when residents petitioned to become part of the city so they could enjoy services such as a streetcar system.

Then there was the airport. Once home of the Twin Cities Speedway, its easily visible bulls-eye strip of concrete made it a natural target for early pilots who landed wherever they could find flat grasslands, Plank said. In the 1940s, almost 200 homes were removed for the new, bigger airport.

Then after World War II, development just "rolled over" the city, Lanegran said.

Jim Fogerty, head of documentary programs for the Minnesota Historical Society, chose Richfield for a series of oral histories tracking suburban development after the war. Richfield boomed with small developers who bought half-blocks to put up six or eight ramblers at a time, buying more land when those houses sold.

The houses were modest, just 800 to 1,000 square feet, Fogerty said. "People bought them and put in grass," he said. "When they paid for the house, they built a garage. And when that was paid for, they built the iconic breezeway in between."

In one of the oral histories, a resident tells of a returning GI she knew who told his mother that he was getting married and had bought a house. "It's $46 a month," he told her. Alarmed by the expense, she replied, "Are you out of your mind?"

In 1940, fewer than 3,800 people lived in Richfield. Between 1950 and 1954, the population zoomed from just over 17,500 to almost 31,800.

Susan Rosenberg lives in one of those post-World War II ramblers. She moved to the city in 1980, and she and her husband raised twin daughters in the house. Finishing the basement expanded the living space to 1,600 square feet.

They found, "like a lot of young married people, Richfield was affordable and the schools were great," she said. "Now, I can't imagine living anywhere else."

Rosenberg has served on the City Council since 1992 and has seen the city change.

How times have changed

Not so long ago, the city and the public schools were the biggest employers. Today, Best Buy headquarters, with more than 5,000 workers, is the leader.

Once Richfield was almost all white. Now, one in five residents is a minority member, and Richfield schools have the highest proportion of Hispanic students in Hennepin County.

Rosenberg said that today people are moving to Richfield for the same reasons she did. Major highways mean Minneapolis and St. Paul are minutes away by car. Commuting by bus is convenient, and all those little ramblers are affordable housing for young families. Though change causes stress, she said, the city is paying attention.

"If we don't stop and listen to the younger ones coming up, we're dead in the water," she said. "We're looking at bike paths, certain redevelopments. If we don't do that, Richfield won't have the successes it did. We can cherish the past, but we also have to really look forward."

And does she have regrets about giving away all that land to Minneapolis and other suburbs over the past century?

Well, she said, the Twin Cities would be different today.

"I always say if we could have maintained our borders, it would be 'Richfield-St. Paul,'" she said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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